Why John Axford is Struggling

The Brewers’ extra innings win over the Phillies on Monday night was exciting. It was encouraging. But there was also a lot of the game that’s going to create more worries going forward.

The defense hasn’t just been bad on this road trip — it’s been terrible, bordering on laughable. That continued on Monday in front of a national audience, but at this point (and at the risk of sounding cliche), it is what it is. The Brewers’ defense isn’t going to get better without fundamentally changing the way the everyday lineup looks.

What can change, though, is what John Axford is doing on the mound.

It’s too early to say that the Brewers should be thinking about making a closer change, but it’s clear that Axford has been scuffling in April. You don’t need to see the numbers to realize that he’s struggling, but they aren’t pretty. After throwing first pitch strikes in 59.2% of at-bats last season, Axford’s started with an 0-1 count only 51.5% of the time this year. That really limits what Axford can do in the rest of the at-bat, and you can see it when you look at the number of pitches he’s throwing in the zone.

Last year, Axford was able to only throw 43.4% of his pitches inside the strikezone, and that was thanks to a high swinging strike percentage of 11.1%. This year, he’s thrown nearly half of his pitches inside the strike zone — 49.6% — and batters simply aren’t missing (only 5.2% of his strikes have been swinging). After making contact on 73.2% of swings against Axford last year, opponents are now making contact 86.5% of the time.

Falling behind early is basically forcing Axford to abandon his breaking pitches, which are what made him so effective last season. FanGraphs’ pitch values had Axford’s slider as his best pitch last season, at 6.8 runs above average. He threw it 16.2% of the time last year. This year, it’s still his best pitch, but he’s only throwing it 12.5% of the time. His curveball usage is also down, dropping from 18.8% last year to 14.3% this year.

The main culprit for Axford’s early struggles has been the command of his fastball. While it was a good pitch for him last season, it’s been terrible this year. The velocity hasn’t changed a bit — he’s still averaging 94 mph with it — but the command and movement has.

I went through Axford’s appearances towards the end of last year, looking for one to compare to Monday night’s. I settled on a 9/18 appearance against the Giants in which he struck out all three batters he faced in a 2-1 Brewers win. He threw 21 pitches in that inning, 14 for strikes. Of those, 12 of the pitches (and 9 of the strikes) were fastballs, with 2 of his 3 swinging strikes in that inning coming on that pitch. Against the Phillies, he threw 16 fastballs for 8 strikes (1 swinging).

I mentioned before the biggest worry is the location and movement of the fastball, and you can see the difference in these two outings. In his outing Monday night, 10 of the 16 fastballs — 62.5% — were above the midpoint in the strikezone (think of it as belt-high or higher), with another nearly on the line. Take a look at the graph from Brooks Baseball:


Against the Giants, 6 of the 14 fastballs he threw then — 42.8% — were in the top half of the zone. It’s not a coincidence that last night was the appearance in which he got burned:

It’s frustrating right now, but it is something that seems to be fixable — he just needs to figure out how to keep his fastball down again. Axford’s mechanics have a lot of moving parts, but if Rick Kranitz can find a way to get Axford back to doing what he was doing under Rick Peterson, things should start to go back to normal. The good news is that Axford seems to know he needs to make an adjustment, and he doesn’t consider it to be a major one.

For the most part, the bullpen has been just as good as the rotation to start the year. Considering how tight the division race projects to be, though, the sooner Axford can get everything straightened out, the better chance the Brewers will have.